“When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do: instead, train your guts out!”
Why did Paul and I go for a Christmas training holiday in Rome, of all places?
I got the idea of spending Christmas in a beachfront suburb of Rome called Ostia, because that was where I had stayed with the Canadian Track & Field team in the summer of 1987. The team was competing in the World Athetics Championships in Rome. Ostia was a great place for distance runners to train; there were shady pine forests nearby with kilometres of soft trails to run on. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to run much during the month of August. I had severe Achilles tendonitis in both feet, and finished a disappointing 32:30 for 16th in the 10,000m final, too crippled to even wear racing spikes.
Now, I was eager to do some serious training in that pine forest. Also, running would be much more pleasant in December than it had been in the scorching August heat.
Paul and I had also spent the two previous Christmases travelling from Brussels. In 1985, I was still suffering from a serious knee injury that I sustained while training for a marathon in the spring of 1984. We decided that we would do a train expedition from Brussels through France and Spain, crossing the water to Gibralter. Our plan was to skip running on this trip so my knee could heal. Our only exercise would be lots of walking with our backpacks. But while we were eating our Christmas dinner in a pub in Gibralter, we saw a sign advertising a 10K race for the next day. We just “happened” to have running clothes in our heavy backpacks. The next morning we stunned the macho military guys who made up the bulk of the competitors in the 10K when we finished 3rd and 4th overall. One of them was so impressed that he kindly had us over for a second Christmas dinner with his family that evening!
So in 1985, we had a holiday during which we saw many places and had many adventures, but only ran once. The following year, we went to a place near Faro, Portugal called “Aldeia das Açoteias.” This was a wonderful training facility used by many international athletes as preparation for the European winter cross-country season. The site hosted an international cross-country meet every February. While we stayed there, we did the bulk of our training on the perfectly-groomed 2034m grass race loop.
In fact, I was so impressed with Aldeia das Açoteias that I’ve kept the brochure for it all these years! You can look at two panels of the eight-panel brochure below.
Paul, however, wasn’t completely happy with our 1986 holiday, because although the training was great and we could walk along striking beaches (it was too cold to swim in December), there weren’t many sightseeing attractions in the surrounding small villages.
We decided on a Rome holiday, therefore, with a plan to both train all-out and sightsee all-out. We made a deal: if Paul would keep up to me in workouts, I would keep up to him while exploring all of the archaeological, religious and artistic treasures that Rome had to offer.
A typical day on our Rome holiday:
We got up pretty early and were running almost as soon as it was light out. Most days we trained between 90 minutes and two hours. On all but a few easier days, the core of our workouts was a 2-mile fast circuit in the forest trails, repeated three or four times (see weekly Training Logs for more details.) After our workout, we’d have a quick breakfast consisting of snacks we’d picked up at the local groceteria. Without further delay, we’d take the 30-minute train ride from Ostia into Rome. This would be the only chance to rest our legs (or snooze) before a demanding day visiting Rome’s tourist attractions. Paul’s interest never flagged; he was determined to see everything! (For tourist ideas and information about Rome, please refer to the Internet.)
At around 5 or 6 in the evening, we’d catch a train back to Ostia and go out for dinner in one of the almost-deserted restaurants there. We had certainly perfected the art of living on a shoestring budget. Our nice hotel room cost about $30 a night, and at restaurants we often ordered only a “starter” course. I think they felt sorry for us and gave us extra-large plates of risotto or pasta when they realized weren’t going to have the meat-and-potatoes course.
Bedtime came early after such a gruelling daily schedule.
Being a tourist in Rome in December
It was fantastic to be a tourist at Christmastime. There were no crowds anywhere. The climate was pleasant.
We discovered just one disadvantage. The city’s restaurants and grocery stores closed up not just on Christmas Day, but on about four of the eleven days we were there! For once, I was grateful for Paul’s habit of always carrying a huge emergency supply of food in his backpack. Foods that I normally shunned (liked tinned vegetables, fish and mixtures of unidentifiable contents) were consumed eagerly. I remember one day we were sitting outside somewhere in Rome, eating our snack in the sun. As the tantalizing odour of canned seafood wafted through the air, we were joined by scores, maybe even hundreds, of Rome’s stray cats. We didn’t have enough to share!
We took one day trip to Naples and another to Pompeii. I don’t remember seeing any other tourists at Pompeii. It was a mild, peaceful day, and the absence of crowds made the ruins of the once-vibrant city seem even more poignant.